The Dancer Inside

As a three-year-old, I went along when my sister, Susie, four years older, had dance lessons at Madame Cassane’s studio in St. Louis. Mother and I watched as Susie held onto the barre, and followed the teacher’s stern commands spoken roughly in a heavy, French accent. Susie pink leotard and tights, and soft, pink ballet slippers, and her long auburn braids were pinned on top of her head. I watched her check herself in the mirror and smile obligingly when she got a nod of approval from Madame Cassane.

Susie hated Madame Cassane. The worst part came at the end of the class, she said. The girls were to patter around the perimeter of the studio, stop one at a time to curtsy to the piano accompanist, then again at the doorway, where stood their instructor, and say, “Good-bye, Madame Cassane.” Later in the car on the way home Susie would complain and mock herself and the others in a sing-songy voice, “Good-bye, Madame Cassane.”

Mother said I would take dance lessons when I was older.

We moved from one end of St. Louis to the other when I turned six, placing us a considerable distance away from Madame Cassane’s Studio. Susie had quit dance lessons long ago by then, having convinced our mother that she would not progress under the tutelage of that “mean witch.” She had no interest in pursuing dance lessons.

There was never again a mention of my enrollment in a dance class.

Looking back I realize I would not have looked as adorable as Susie did in leotard and tights, not to mention a tutu. In fact, you know those hippos in Fantasia, dancing around in giant tutus, the ruffles of which covered the vast circumference of their midsection? Sort of like that. Mom may have wanted to avoid the embarrassment of sitting there with the other mothers whose daughters were more ballerina-like.

Mother always insisted that I was not fat. A bit plump, she would say. But as we were growing up Susie was much more honest. She liked to call me Fatty Patty then laugh hysterically. Our parents told her that was off-limits, but she found ways to sneak it in. She even bought me a monogrammed pen once, under the guise of generosity. It said “Patty,” on it. I had never been called Patty except by her, and I grew to abhor the name. It’s okay for other people, but if someone mistakenly calls me that (it is a common nickname for Patricia), in the inner depths of me I hear “Fatty Patty.”

When the tune “Blueberry Hill” was popular on the radio, Susie began calling me “Domino.” Mother told her to cut it out. “Why?! What’s wrong with Domino? It’s a game!”

Two more sisters came after me, then finally a brother. The whole family was toward the lean side. Dad was 6’ 2” and thin. Mother was a whole foot shorter and petite in stature. All of my siblings were lean and fit. I was the only one lacking the wing-like shoulder blades, visible ribs, and bony knees.

I wasn’t inactive. I jumped rope, ran, played softball, tag, and kick-the-can along with the other neighborhood kids. I was the pogo stick champion, able to maintain jumping longer than anyone else. But you wouldn’t find me on the jungle gym on the school playground. Swinging on monkey bars was not my thing. I was mortified when we had rope climbing in gym class. While other children zipped up the rope and back down, I could barely hold on to the rope, much less pull myself upwards.

“Tricia can’t climb the apple tree,” I overheard my grandmother chuckling one day as she told Mom. It was true. Susie and my younger sisters were able to grab the higher branches and pull their lean bodies up with ease.

The agony of clothes shopping as a Chubbette continued through my grade school years. I still have vague, unpleasant flashbacks every September when I see “Back to School” ads. I recall being with Mother in the dressing room as she tried to fit me into the plaid, pleated skirts she found so stylish.

And then, in the period of time bridging 6th and 7th grades, I stumbled upon the motivation to lose weight. We moved to Florida, where my classmates lived in shorts and swim suits much of the time. And girls wore not one-piece suits, but two-piece, or even bikinis. Every weekend held a beach party, and there were no cartoon-like hippos lying on the sand or surfing. Also, this was the age of intense scrutiny, both from others and myself. While I was unhappy with my weight previously, adolescence put a new, more glaring spotlight on it. And then, perhaps hormonal changes didn’t hurt. In any case, I slimmed down. I could have looked the part of a ballerina.

Both of my younger sisters took ballet and tap lessons in Cocoa Beach. Years later I asked Mother, why did I never have dance lessons?

“I never knew you wanted to,” she said.

Why have I hung on to the idea that I was deprived of dance lessons? I’ve harbored resentment over this for many years. “All of my sisters took dance,” I would say, mostly to myself but also to friends willing to listen. Did I long to dance? Did I actually have a strong yearning to be a ballerina? Surely if I had I would have pursued it. If I had told my mother I wanted to take dance lessons she would have enrolled me. In fact, she probably would have been delighted.

Perhaps what I wanted was to feel pretty. To wear a leotard and tights, ballet slippers. And yes, tutus! Beautifully sequined dance costumes like those worn by my sisters in their dance recitals. They all had a shiny satin bodice and a flouncy nylon netting skirt. To play the part of the snow queen or a sugar plum fairy in the Nutcracker. I think I wanted to be a princess. Or princess-like. I wanted to try on my dance costume and see my parents’ eyes light up! “How pretty you look!” is what I craved.

So, yes. What I think I longed for was not to take dance lessons. I longed to be seen as a beautiful little girl! To be seen that way by my parents, my grandparents and siblings. And to see myself that way. What I mourn is the confidence; the self-image that I felt was unavailable to me. I wanted to look in the mirror and see a girl who could be a dancer if she wanted to be.